For all the popularity of alcohol, everyone knows at least one person who has struggled with alcoholism. And there have been hundreds of cases of celebrities, politicians, and other public figures getting treatment for an alcohol habit that got out of hand. We hear a lot about words like “rehab,” “detox,” and “therapy” when it comes to alcohol treatment, but what does all of that entail? How does it help someone get clean and stay clean? And what does this mean for you, or someone you know, who is fighting a battle against the temptation to keep drinking?
How Prevalent Are Alcohol Problems?
Alcohol issues are not limited to a certain demographic or race of people. The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that in the category of heavy drinking, men outdrank women by 10.9 percent to 3.6 percent. Racial demographics of respondents in the same category were led by Native Americans at 9.3 percent, followed by Caucasians at 8.1 percent, and African-Americans coming in third at 5.1 percent.
There are many reasons that can cause a person to become an alcoholic. Some of the biggest risk factors that suggest the development of a drinking problem will seem obvious
while others might surprise you:
- Having more than 15 drinks a week (for men)
- Having more than 12 drinks a week (for women)
- Having a relative with alcoholism
- Having a mental health problem (such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia)
The environment in which a person grows up and lives might also be a deciding factor in whether they are in danger of succumbing to the temptation to drink dangerously. Situational triggers might be:
Living in a family or social environment where excessive alcohol consumption is practiced or encouraged
Stressful, perhaps dangerous environments
Exposure to media that glorifies drinking or intoxicated behavior
Availability of alcohol
Additionally, some basic characteristics can affect whether or not a person is likely to be predisposed to becoming an alcoholic. These include:
- Physical health
The consumption of prescription or recreational drugs is critical when alcohol is involved, as the chemicals in the medications or drugs can speed up and/or exacerbate the intoxicating/addictive effects of alcohol.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse?
The signs of developing an alcohol problem range from troubling habits to various aspects of life collapsing as a result of losing money and time to a drinking habit.
For example, drinking as a way of coping with difficulties or stress, instead of confronting the sources of those difficulties or stressors, is an early indication that someone is relying too heavily on alcohol. Feelings of shame during or after drinking, or trying to hide evidence of drinking, point to a person who is not in control of their drinking habits.
Once alcohol intake goes beyond moderate levels, other areas of a person’s life begin to suffer. A decline in academic and/or professional obligations as a direct result of the alcohol – because the person is regularly too drunk or hung over to meet those obligations – is a clear sign that drinking has gotten out of hand.
Alcohol is known for lowering inhibitions, but when alcohol is combined with risky activities, such as driving/operating machinery or taking drugs (either prescription or recreational), this may be an indication that alcohol is being taken in at abusive levels. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism warns that mixing alcohol with medication can cause internal bleeding and heart problems, as well as cause liver damage and make the medications toxic to the body.
Persistence in drinking, even when daily life is being negatively impacted by the effect of the alcohol dependence, is one of the biggest signs of abuse. A person who is addicted to drinking simply cannot stop drinking, even as the evidence of the harm they are doing to themselves and the world around them mounts. Alcohol offers an escape from their responsibilities and realities, and this is preferable to confronting the truth of the destructiveness of their addiction. Similarly, resisting pleas, requests, and demands to stop drinking is a surefire sign of abuse.
While casual or moderate drinking has some potential advantages – relaxation, heightened enjoyment of stimuli, etc. – problem drinkers are unable to enjoy these advantages without alcohol. In other words, casual or moderate drinkers will be able to find other ways to relax or enjoy themselves even if alcohol is not present, or they make the choice to abstain. But if someone is completely unable to function for pleasurable reasons without alcohol, they cannot conceive of having a good time without getting drunk, or reaching for the bottle is their first response to any kind of trigger (either stressful or pleasurable), then this is a sign that they are abusing alcohol and need help to stop.
But perhaps the biggest indicators of an alcohol problem are the withdrawal symptoms if a problem drinker goes without alcohol. A casual or moderate drinker can cut off their intake of alcohol with no adverse effects. If a problem drinker tries to do the same, they may feel some effects of withdrawal within eight hours of their last drink, such as the following:
- Cold sweating
- Cognitive impairment
- Pain in the muscles and joints
In extreme cases, a person might experience seizures, fever, or even hallucinations. But regardless of the severity, the presence of withdrawal in the absence of alcohol is the clearest sign that a person has developed a dependence on alcohol.
What Happens in Alcohol Treatment?
As with treatment for most substance abuse problems, there are two angles to treating an alcohol problem. The first step is to break the physical dependence on alcohol. As mentioned above, cutting off alcohol after developing an addiction to it can cause withdrawal symptoms that could be severe enough to drive a patient back to drinking. For that reason, the detoxification process of treatment often involves the careful administration of drugs like anti-anxiety drugs to help wean the patient off their dependence on alcohol and through the process of acclimatizing to life without alcohol.
Upon exiting treatment, a patient may be prescribed a drug like disulfiram, which prevents the body from chemically processing alcohol, causing an unpleasant reaction if the patient relapses or attempts to relapse. Because of disulfiram’s toxicity, it has to be taken under the supervision of a doctor, as unregulated usage can cause strong, even fatal reactions.
After the physical detoxification process, the next stage of alcohol treatment involves treating the mental health of the patient with counseling and therapy. A psychologist or psychotherapist will work closely with the patient to help identify the reasons that the patient turned to problem drinking. Once these reasons are understood, the next stage is to apply the understanding to the future, giving the patient the tools they need to make better choices and decisions. Part of the treatment process is to break associations with the people and environments that encouraged the patient to drink past healthy levels. Since alcohol is so prevalent in society and even everyday life, treatment will also involve learning how to resist the temptation to drink in socially acceptable situations, and how to deal with the thoughts and memories of the pleasure derived from drinking.
This kind of treatment is known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), because it introduces the patient to new and healthier ways of thinking (“cognitive”) and acting (“behavioral”). The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that the success of alcohol treatment depends on “changing a person’s behaviors and expectations about alcohol.”
For example, dealing with stress in a positive and beneficial way is one of the goals of CBT; since removing stressors from life is impossible, the focus shifts to appropriate ways to approach stressful situations, both mentally and behaviorally.
Another example of CBT would be teaching the patient how to respond to the triggers that might once have tempted them to drink. It could be as straightforward as learning to decline an invitation to consume an alcoholic beverage. For a casual drinker, this is not an issue at all; for someone who had an intense psychological desire to drink, saying “no” can seem like the hardest challenge in the world, but that is how CBT can help turn a recovering addict’s life around.
It’s commonly known that even after the completion of a treatment program, the temptation to drink again is a lifelong challenge. However, in addition to coping skills and medication, treatment also gives the patient a vast network of contacts – a therapist, a sponsor from a support group, etc. – who make it their priority to talk the addict out of a potential relapse. Being accountable to someone who understands the challenge of trying to remain sober after treatment helps counter the fear and frustration that can be a part of that challenge.
Getting Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Despite the many available options for alcohol treatment, many people still don’t know where and how to start. They are unsure whether their drinking habit constitutes a problem; they are scared or embarrassed to ask for help; or they’re afraid of delving into the reasons why they turned to problem drinking.
That’s why we are here for you. Getting treatment for your alcohol addiction is the first step on your journey to health and recovery, but it’s a big step and not an easy one to make. We understand that. Whatever your questions and concerns are, there is a solution and an answer. Call us for information on alcohol treatment. We can also answer your questions about Dual Diagnosis treatment for those who are suffering from a mental health issue in conjunction with substance abuse.
Further Reading About The Facts About Alcohol Treatment
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton